ISIS and al Qaeda — same sport, same level, different strategies

President Obama famously characterized ISIS as al Qaeda’s jayvee. This bit of idiocy will long be remembered, to the detriment of Obama’s legacy.

But how should we compare ISIS and al Qaeda? A year ago, if I recall correctly, conventional wisdom had it that ISIS was preoccupied with securing and expanding its regional caliphate (sort of like Stalin’s “socialism in one country”), whereas al Qaeda was more internationally focused (Trotsky style, if you will).

Given recent developments, this comparison can be declared invalid. ISIS now operates in regions not contiguous with its “state” and is encouraging and, seemingly choreographing, attacks in the West.

Meanwhile, al Qaeda seems to be rebranding itself. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross describes the phenomenon in a paper called “The War between the Islamic State and al-Qaeda: Strategic Dimensions of a Patricidal Conflict.” He also discussed it at a conference hosted by “New America.”

The two key (and related) elements of al Qaeda’s rebranding are (1) the use of gradualism and cooperation with local populations in order to increase its base of popular support and (2) the use of clandestine efforts and popular front groups, such as Ansar al-Sharia, to reduce its exposure to counterinsurgent attack and to avoid frightening or alienating local populations.

ISIS has played a major role in making the rebranding plausible. Its flamboyantly murderous approach has enabled al Qaeda to present itself as a more responsible force. Al Qaeda suffered a huge blow as result of the bloody behavior of its Iraq franchise, and its subsequent defeat during President Bush’s surge. But with ISIS emerging as the true successor to al Qaeda in Iraq, al Qaeda itself could walk away from the debacle.

These days, it is ISIS that seeks to maximize its terrorist footprint. Al Qaeda wants the terrorism, but usually not the footprint. ISIS terrorists like to chop off heads with the video cameras rolling. Al Qaeda generally prefers an off-camera bullet to the head.

Just as ISIS has succeeded so far on its terms, the rebranded al Qaeda is succeeding on its. Syria presents the best example. Al Qaeda’s affiliate, Al Nusra, openly receives financial and other material support from major U.S. allies. Moreover, American-backed Syrian rebels work with Al Nusra. As Gartenstein-Ross says, these arrangements would have been unthinkable four years ago.

Because al Qaeda is succeeding on its terms, it apparently hasn’t felt as compelled as I feared it would to engage in terrorist one-upmanship with ISIS. But we shouldn’t assume that this state of affairs will continue.

Al Qaeda and ISIS are competitors and I think its fair to say that they are competing for many of the same fighters and recruits. If al Qaeda is adopting more of a “slow but steady” approach, it’s only because they think it will win them the race. To be more precise, it’s because they think that ISIS’s fast pace will lead to its demise.

This is one reason why it’s so important that the U.S. crush ISIS. For if ISIS continues to flourish while pulling off high-profile attacks, al Qaeda will see that it is losing the competition and likely will feel the need to resort to terrorist one-upsmanship.

Crushing ISIS would also enable us to refocus on al Qaeda. The outfit that killed thousands of Americans on 9/11 would no longer have any chance of flying more or less under our radar screen.

One deadly world-wide terrorist enemy is enough. ISIS is the one that is sticking its neck out. We should see to its decapitation.